Saisiyat (Say-Siyat) society consists of village clans. The Saisiyat people adopted Chinese surnames during the Qing dynasty and followed the social and marriage norms. The ancestral spirits and little black spirits are the major religious beliefs in the Saisiyat people, and Pas-ta’ai (Ritual for the little black spirits) is particularly well known. Currently, the Saisiyat population has 6,730 people (as of January 2020).
Saisiyat community identify themselves as Saisiyat, and transliterated their name into Chinese as Sai Xia ethnic group.. According to the Saisiyat legend, the ancestors of all communities and ethnic groups come from the flesh, the bone, the stomach, and the intestines thrown in the sea of the child of a brother and a sister who survived the deluge. The Saisiyat people are distributed in northwestern Taiwan in two administrative regions: Hsinchu County and Miaoli County separated by Ergonji Mountain (Ngangihaw). The Saisiyat people in Hsinchu County settled in Da’ai Village (Sansama:an) and Huayuan Village (Mayhoman) on the Shangping River drainage basin in Wufeng Township. As they are surrounded by many Atayal communities, both ethnic groups influence each other culturally. The Saisiyat people in Miaoli County settled in Donghe and Nanhe drainage basin at the upstream of the Zhonggang River in Nanzhuang Township and the Shitan River drainage basin at the upstream of the Huolong River. Communities mainly settle in Donghe, Penglai, and Nanjinag villages in Nanzhuang Township and in Baisho Village in Shitan Township. Surrounded by Hakka Han communities, the Saisiyat people in Miaoli have been deeply influenced by local Hakka culture in daily life.
In the Qing dynasty, the Saisiyat expanded their territory to Sanwan and Toufen in Miaoli, bordering the Taokas (Taukat, plain indigenous people) in the West. The eastward movement of Hakka immigrants in Hsinchu and Miaoli after the mid-Qing dynasty disturbed the Saisiyat territory. As the global market of camphor expanded, armed cultivators began to invade Saisiyat territory, causing much nuisance to the Saisiyat. From then on, in addition to requesting rent from camphor developers, some Saisiyat people ran camphor businesses themselves. During Japanese colonization, the colonial government reckoned that the Saisiyat territory was the crown land. As this affected the camphor tax income and the ownership of the Saisiyat people, the expropriation resulted in a resistance called the Nanzhuang Incident in 1902. Later, the Saisiyat people in Hsinchu were recruited by the Hakka people in the armed resistance against the colonial government, resulting in the Beipu Incident of 1907. Due to the Hakka Han cultivation in the Qing dynasty and the camphor business competition of the colonial government during Japanese colonization, the Saisiyat began to decline, resulting in the ethnic relationships and cultural status today. In recent years, the Saisiyat people have settled in Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli.
Rice, millet, sweet potatoes, and taro are the staple foods of the Saisiyat people. There are also meat and fish in rituals and ceremonies. Representative Saisiyat foods include sticky rice cakes, raw cured meat, and glutinous rice wine. Both sticky rice cakes and glutinous rice wine are made of grains, notably glutinous rice, while cured meat is made of meat acquired from fishing and hunting. In preparation, one layer of rice is put on top of a piece of raw meat or raw fish and soaked for fermentation until the bone turns crisp and the meat is tender. When served, the meat has a mild sour taste, which is typical Saisiyat flavour.
Saisiyat people make clothes mainly with linen. After debarking, fiber extraction, spinning, reeling, beaching, and dyeing, and warping to turn the flax plant into linen, Saisiyat people make the clothes by sewing. After exchange and trading with the Han people in western Taiwan, they began to replace linen with cotton. Traditional clothing includes the sleeveless long garment, sleeveless short garment, skirt, loincloth, cloak, and bosom. Common colors include white, red, and black. On a white background, Saisiyat people make red patterns decorated with black. The Saisiyat dress code includes casual wear and ceremonial wear. Casual wear is usually made of plain colored linen, while ceremonial wear has geometric patterns and is decorated with various ornaments. Although access to Han clothing increased after Japanese colonization, Saisiyat people still wore traditional clothing on important occasions. Saisiyat ornaments include headwear, neckwear, earwear, hand wear, and leg wear. Traditional materials include shells, bones, and bamboo. Today, they also use modern materials such as plastics, buttons, and sequins.
◎ Tabaa’sang for Pas-ta’ai (hip bells for the ritual of the short people): The tabaa’sang (also called the “back ring”) for pas-ta’ai and kirakil (dancing cap, also called the moonlight flag) are the most characteristic Saisiyat ritual implements. Most tabaa’sang are triangular and tied with a cloth strap or lace across the shoulders on the back, so that the pending ornaments hung on the strap or lace jingles when people dance. The kirakil is a cloth banner carried or worn on the shoulder or the head. On the banner, there are patterns of stars, the moon, and flowers and the name of the clan. Alongside the bells and sequins, young people of each clan wear them while dancing in the parade at a ceremony.
During Japanese colonization, the Saisiyat people still practiced a range of body decoration customs: tattoos, epilation, ear piercing, and tooth mutilation. Body tattooing is common to both Saisiyat men and women. Saisiyat men get tattoos on the forehead (forehead tattooing) and chin (chin tattooing), and the chest (chest tattooing); while women only get tattoos on their foreheads. Both the forehead tattooing and chin tattooing are symbols of the coming of age for both men and women, while chest tattooing is limited only to warriors with contributions to the community or merits in decapitation, i.e. the more the chest tattoos, the higher the social rank in the community.
◎ Weaving Weaving is women’s work in Saisiyat culture. Geometric patterns are traditional, including the diamond and lineal patterns woven with red, black, and white colors.
◎ Bamboo and Rattan Weaving With bamboo and rattan, the Saisiyat people weave daily-life tools, such as seed baskets, back baskets, hand baskets, food baskets, storage boxes, rice sieves, and ancestral spirit baskets. The double-strap back basket is a representative daily-life tool of the Saisiyat. The weaving technique is inherited through men. Apart from the selection and repair of materials, the procedure includes bottom making, body weaving, binding off, and strengthening. When pest resistance is required, they will coat the tool’s surface with the juice of the shoulang yam (Dioscorea cirrhosa) or wood ash.
Traditional Family Houses Built Mainly With Bamboo (Saisiyat) Saisiyat people build family houses mainly with bamboo: large bamboo for columns, smaller bamboo for the wall, and bamboo sheets or thatch for the roof. As a very important item of a family house, the fireplace (stove) is often located at the center of the entrance to the main hall. Or, three stones are erected on the left-hand side for family members to keep warm and cook. The bed is located by the wall at the corner. Traditionally, the Saisiyat build an animal bone rack overhead the entrance for storing the mandible and lower jawbone of wild boars, monkeys, and muntjacs. There is space for earing poultries or livestock (chicken coop or pigpen) on both sides or the rear of the family house. The Saisiyat family house was originally a one-piece unit. Influenced by Han culture, Saisiyat people have added partitions and a living room to the family house.
1. Clans and Family Names
The Saisiyat (Say-Siyat) society is a patrilineal society. A clan is the basic societal unit and is formed by families having the same patrilineal ancestor. Then, they form political, military, and religious support groups, such as the defense alliance and ritual groups. For example, they form labor groups for building, cultivation, hunting, and ancestral rituals by clan. Due to mutual support, clans become more intimate and form the phratry led by a more powerful clan. In addition, they follow the taboo of banning marriage within the phratry. The Saisiyat ethnic group is composed of 18 clans; each has its own name that is named after plants, natural phenomena, or physical conditions. In the Qing dynasty, Saisiyat people combined the clan system with the family name in Han culture and translated their clan names into Chinese characters either phonologically or semantically. These Saisiyat surnames include: Tou or Zhao from tawtaw-azay, Zhu from titiyon, Feng from ba:-ba:i’, Gao from kaybaybaw, Pan and Qian from sa:wan, Gen from kaS-a:mes, Chang from min-rakeS, Sha from hayawan, Xie (crab) from kar-karang, Ri from tanohila:, Shi from tataysi’, Qiong from Say-na-‘ase:, Hu (fox) from bot-botol, Chan from kam-lala:i’, Shi, Xie from katiramo, and Mo (fascia) from tabtabilas. Later, they changed the characters for Xie from “crab” to the fief name in ancient China, for Hu from “fox” to the common Han surname, for Chan from cicada to Jian (a different character for the same Romanization in the Wade-Giles system). Shi, Xie, and Mo are almost extinct.
2. Marriage and Family
The Saisiyat people are patrilineal and live in big families; male seniors are well regarded and respected. Although monogamy is practiced, marriage by exchange was common before Japanese colonization; the two families exchange daughters through marriage. Saisiyat people value clan culture and relationships, and marriage within the same clan or phratry is prohibited.
3. Tribal Organization
A Saisiyat village is formed by nearby communities. Competence, communication skills, impartiality, and enthusiasm are the basic requirements of the chief. Community public affairs are discussed and decided by the elders and implemented by the chief.
The ancestral spirits and the little black spirits are the two major beliefs in Saisiyat culture. The ancestral spirits are close to people and affect daily life. The little black spirits are related to history and legends. The ancestral spirit belief is the major force of ethnic group protection and affects the good and bad fortune in daily life. Before a long trip, staying in the mountain overnight, or sending gifts, Saisiyat people must worship the ancestral spirit with wine and meat. The Saisiyat people communicate with the ancestral spirits through magic, and divination is the most important means. They seek help from the ancestral spirit in illness, unsolved problems, and finding lost objects. Saisiyat people began contacts with the Han people in the Qing dynasty and accepted some Han folk religions, ceremonies, and concepts, such as the Tudi Gong (God of the soil), Sanshan Guowang (Kings of the Three Mountains), and worship of ancestral tablets. Along with Christianity and Catholic, we observe traditional Saisiyat beliefs, Han folk religions, Catholic and Christianity in Saisiyat’s polytheism and culture.
Pas-ta’ai is the ritual of worshipping the little black spirits. It is said that Saisiyat people and Da’ai people (dwarf village) were neighbors and Saisiyat people learned farming, medicine, singing, and dancing, and rituals from them. Therefore, they invited the Da’ai people to join the harvest festival every year to thank for their help. Nontheless, the Da’ai people often harassed Saisiyat women; the angry Saisiyat people thus killed the Da’ai people as revenge.
The legend and concept of the “little black spirit” are very important to the Saisiyat people. In addition to a set of taboos in rituals, there are restrictions to follow in daily life. Originally, the Saisiyat people held Pas-ta’ai in October on the lunar calendar. As it was banned by the Japanese government, they have changed to one minor ritual biennially and one grand ritual decennially and they also divided rituals into southern and northern ceremonial groups.
Pas-ta’ai lasts for more than a month. The ceremonial process generally covers three parts: before ritual, during ritual, and after ritual.
The ceremony of paSbaki’ (ancestral spirits) includes the spring and autumn rituals. One is held in June on the lunar calendar after the pit’aza’ (sowing ritual) and another one in November on the lunar calendar after the crop harvest. It is a ceremony to worship deceased ancestors by the patrilineal relatives of each clan. The ancestral spirit basket (bag) is the symbol in the ritual. After filling the basket with water, the master of the ceremony (male family host) touches the water with the right index finger and puts the water on the lips of the family members to bless them with the ancestral energy.
During Japanese colonization, both the ritual and the basket of the ancestral spirits were banned, it resulted in changes to the rituals. Today, Saisiyat people worship the ancestral spirits with offerings such as wine and meat. Elders will present the offerings to ancestors toward the east. Then, family members will join a communion at noon serving traditional foods including pork, fish, and glutinous rice cakes in a traditional way (with hands). Although the benediction with water ceremony has been replaced by the communion, people’s remembrance for their ancestors never changes.